Archive for August 2021

Behemoth

August 29, 2021

behemoth

Peter Szewczyk (credited here as Sefchik) is a digital-effects artist who has worked on a few Star Wars films and Avatar. So in his feature directing debut Behemoth, we know the monsters and other effects will be first-rate. Unfortunately, everything else in this underpopulated mash-up of paranoid corporate thriller and trippy supernatural horror is second-rate at best. Joshua (Josh Eisenberg) is a father driven around the bend by grief and guilt over his ailing little daughter, whose disease may have been caused by the chemical company he used to work for. Along with a couple of friends, Joshua kidnaps a higher-up at the company (Paul Statman) and keeps him at a motel, hoping to force a confession: what poisoned his daughter?

This crime is all over the news, so it’s odd that the cops don’t bother to question Joshua’s wife Amy (Whitney Nielsen), who’s staying in a hospital room with their daughter. Instead, every time we hear from Amy, she lays a guilt trip on Joshua for not being there for his daughter. Meanwhile, Joshua’s friends give new meaning to the word “inept,” and an assassin from the company is closing in. There are also numerous hellish visions involving what seems to be a possessed goat, as well as sundry other beasties and Natural Born Killers-style strobe-cuts flashing gore-soaked demons and butchers. 

That last element seems to be where Szewczyk’s heart is. As I noted about Wishmaster, the directorial debut of practical-effects maestro Robert Kurtzman, such craftspeople who graduate to the director’s chair often focus on their specialty to the exclusion of all else. Behemoth gasses on a lot about the evils of corporations poisoning the land and our children, which is a valid topic for a movie if overdone, but then Szewczyk festoons it with monsters and grotesques. Is this corporation literally run by devils and ghouls? Szewczyk and his co-writer Derrick Ligas don’t really connect the theme and the plot, and frankly there’s not enough plot to power a feature-length film. The denouement further makes Behemoth feel like an extended (and bad) Twilight Zone episode.

At times, Behemoth wants us to think all the grody stuff is just in Joshua’s head. That suspicion intensifies when Joshua pops some of his friend’s MDA instead of painkillers (oh yeah, Joshua spends most of the movie contending with a bullet wound in his hip, despite which he manages to stand up and not bleed out) and hallucinates all kinds of gnarly phantasms — or are they hallucinations? There’s a story buried in there somewhere, but a lot more of it needed to be dug out of the soil. As it is, Szewczyk unearthed whatever bits would justify playing in his digital-monster sandbox but only got crumbs of anything that would have made the story meaningful, resonant. 

Some might be willing to go along with it just for the horned boogeymen, but a more concerning problem with Behemoth is that Peter Szewczyk is good at what he usually does, but simply isn’t cut out to direct. His actors listlessly chew the scenery when they’re not tossing off dead-zone line readings, and he has no sense of pace, so the movie feels much longer than it is. We’re often not sure what’s important and what isn’t (does the same actor play a newscaster and a motel manager? why? are they involved in the action or just a daydream?), and Szewczyk doesn’t seem to know, either. The narrative just grinds on unpleasantly but artlessly — except for those computer-generated nasties. They deserve to be in a better film, one that doesn’t rely so heavily on them to work, and then doesn’t work anyway. 

Val

August 15, 2021

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Not long before the lights go down on the raw and somewhat depressing videography Val, its subject, Val Kilmer, in character as Mark Twain, offers a question — perhaps, for him, the question: “What are the words that heal a broken heart?” Kilmer, whose peak as a Hollywood actor probably ran from 1984 (his debut Top Secret!) to 1995 (Batman Forever), has lost a great deal in his life. He appears to us now as a rumpled but unbowed version of his younger self, humbled but also possibly delivered into a purer way of being. He no longer gets hired for big-ticket movies, but maybe he had outgrown them anyway. It’s likely Kilmer’s film career in the 2010s would have been fallow even without the cancer that took his voice in 2015.

Kilmer’s voice always landed quirkily on the ear anyway. His defining performance, for me, was in his second feature, Real Genius; his brilliant science brat Chris Knight had a way of making smarts seem sexy, witty, radical. His best-received turns, certainly including his possible peak as Doc Holliday in 1993’s Tombstone, ran off of Kilmer’s self-amused vibe of outsider cool as expressed in a vocal tone that stayed just this side of parody (a good number of his early performances all sound as though his dialogue has ironic quotation marks around it). This was a guy who was going to keep you at arm’s length out of necessity — nursing his own pains, starting with losing his younger brother when Kilmer was about to hang his hat at Juilliard — and it meant all the more when he showed you some vulnerability, as at the end of Doc Holliday’s life.

We certainly see his vulnerability in Val. The movie was assembled by directors/editors Leo Scott and Ting Poo from hours of video footage shot by Kilmer himself over the years — on the sets of Top Gun or The Doors or The Island of Dr. Moreau. The narrative flips back and forth between home movies of Kilmer (narrated by Kilmer’s son Jack) and newer footage of Kilmer talking slowly and painfully through his trach button, or fulfilling autograph gigs at conventions or screenings. Kilmer seems to perceive that his acting career is by and large over, supplanted by a sort of extended farewell tour where he scribbles “I’ll be your wingman” on Top Gun posters for fans over and over. Sometimes this turn of events saddens him, and sometimes he’s in a mood to see it as a tribute to the mark he’s made on people’s lives. Having lost nearly everything, he grapples his grown kids (Jack and Mercedes) unto his soul with hoops of steel.

Throughout Val — produced by Kilmer and his kids — we know full well we’re getting one side and one side only. The movie does soften one’s attitude towards him (if we paid any attention to the media’s pegging him as “difficult” in the ‘90s); we come to feel he’s earned some rest, some laurels to rest on. He keeps his creative hand in by doing paintings or cut-up scrapbook projects; Val is like one of his scrapbooks promoted to a “documentary.” Between this film and his 2020 memoir I’m Your Huckleberry, Kilmer seems to be ordering his legacy, in his standard eccentric-shambolic style. The floors of his place are littered with clippings, photos, memorabilia, many highlighted by Kilmer’s magic-marker scrawl.

As The New Yorker’s Richard Brody noted, the Rosebud of Kilmer’s life was his younger brother and early collaborator Wesley, gone far too soon at 15 — perhaps the artistic partner who understood Kilmer the best. It’s tempting though probably simplistic to diagnose Kilmer’s subsequent life and career as looking in vain for Wesley again. Regardless, Kilmer carried that sense of super-8-in-the-backyard playfulness to his film roles. Watching him in that oft-clipped Top Gun scene where he chops his teeth at Tom Cruise and then grins, we felt that whatever private joke this guy was having, we wanted to be in on it. He lured us closer; he never came closer to us, but made us feel it’d be cool to be included on his wavelength, even if he never quite brought us in all the way. In Val, we see him low and sad and sick, but it’s still only the face he wants to put forward. He remains, somewhat triumphantly, off in his own zone.

Pig

August 8, 2021

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Frustrated viewers may pick apart Pig until there’s nothing left. Pig is one of those quietly opaque art-house wonders, in which volumes of meaning are meant to be expressed by what’s not said. But more often than not it just comes across as muffled and boring, despite Nicolas Cage’s implosive restraint in the lead. Cage plays Robin Feld, who lives off the grid in the Oregon woods with his beloved pig. The pig is great at sniffing out truffles, and Robin sells them to a Portland food supplier (Alex Wolff), whose business is in competition with his rich, shady father (Adam Arkin). Late at night, a couple of meth-heads break into Robin’s shack and steal the pig. Robin spends the rest of the film trying to get her back.

Pig takes the form of a mystery wherein Robin goes from place to place in the big bad city, questioning various people. The subtext here is that Robin, who suffered a grave loss that pushed him into solitude, is taking a tour through his past … which turns out to be the seamy, violent underworld of … the Portland gourmet-restaurant scene. If you think about that for a minute it sounds richly ridiculous, and since the movie itself is so dolorous and glacially paced, we may not feel generous enough to supply metaphorical analysis to it. The movie is decidedly not for the sort of moviegoers who stand out in the parking lot afterwards saying things like “Why did he do that?” and “Who were all those people?”

All those people are from Robin’s past life; they also represent something or another. They would have to, because the first-time writer-director Michael Sarnoski doesn’t seem to care about them as people. One scene between Robin and a baker is filmed entirely in long shot; we never even see what the baker looks like. This sort of pompously minimalist filmmaking makes me itchy. Pig, I think, is using its obscure milieu to represent the larger capitalist society that grinds up good people, sends them grieving into the woods, and steals their pigs. But the tone is dreary and sometimes off-putting, and the camera isn’t where it needs to be half the time. We can see what Sarnoski is going for, but the drab conception trips him up. It’s depressive and logy and, even at only 92 minutes, a tough sit.

Cage often does manic jazz riffs, but this time he limits the number of notes he allows himself. It allows Cage to focus, bear down. The pain radiates from Robin in muted waves; two beatings early in the movie leave his face smeared with blood, which he never bothers to wash off. We empathize even though the specifics of Robin’s inner anguish are only supplied to us piecemeal. I imagine Cage reading the artfully fill-in-the-blanks script and saying “I can do something with this.” What he does with it is probably worth seeing, though honestly he’s been far better, and the movie leans too heavily on him to hold itself together. A key moment near the end — even here, Sarnoski pretentiously cuts the sound — provides the catharsis for the whole creaky contraption, and with anyone but Cage it’d be a bad joke.

Some will succumb to the taciturn literariness of Pig, and others, like me, will grow restless. The narrative arrow couldn’t be straighter — Robin wants his pig back — but the filmmaking lacks urgency. I wasn’t feeling it, and I wasn’t buying it. It happens. I’m perfectly willing to concede that Pig is a work of art that just bounces off me for whatever reason. It’s certainly not the work of the usual anonymous shmoes. Sarnoski clearly cares about this story; I don’t at all doubt his sincerity. But the connection between art and us can be so delicate, so easily broken — or stronger than a steel cable — all depending on us. Ultimately, I think, the technique — recall that long shot of Robin and the baker — kept me at arm’s length, kept me from wanting to engage it as the sort of art that requires us to finish it. Some will finish it and come away with a compelling meditation on life. I came away with fragmented memories of Cage whenever the director got out of his way.

A Quiet Place Part II

August 1, 2021

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John Krasinski, we might imagine, sat in his office chortling at all the headaches he put the characters through while writing A Quiet Place Part II. On the set, directing all the chaos, he may have chuckled even more. Krasinski had more fun, I hope, than we do watching the film — it’s grim and stressful and relentless, but comes off even more hollow than the first film (which Krasinski also directed and co-wrote). What is the deeper point of the story? Is there even more story to tell? Once again, we have the gnarly, chittering alien creatures, whose tracking of prey is based on sound. Again, too, we have Evelyn (Emily Blunt), her daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds), her son Marcus (Noah Jupe), and her baby son. They hide and retreat from the critters, and Regan, who is deaf, figures out someone is sending a signal to any survivors.

Those Krasinski set pieces, including the genuinely frightening first reel that shows us glimpses of the ghastly first day of the creatures’ invasion, have a charge of sadistic cleverness. Krasinski likes to set several crises off at once, so he can cross-cut and bludgeon us into a motor response. A Quiet Place Part II is full of wince-provoking moments with people trying like hell not to make noise, but that only goes so far — maybe only as far as the first movie. We’re briefed on a major new weakness of the creatures, which apparently only a relative few people know about, or we’d be seeing a lot more folks availing themselves of that Achilles heel. As it is, human nature ruined the efficacy of any strategy based on that weakness, and a new character, Emmett (Cillian Murphy), has presumably seen hell out there — the few survivors have devolved into people “not worth saving,” he growls. 

Emmett will see the light, though, as sure as there’s Mom and apple pie. Regan, once again well-played by the deaf actress Millicent Simmonds, was a realistically flawed kid in the first film, but has blossomed into a genius who’s pure of heart in the sequel. She’s supposed to represent hope in the face of annihilation, an unfair burden for any character. Late in the film, we meet some of those people Emmett talked about, and they are indeed a scurvy, grotesque bunch — for a few minutes we seem to have wandered into a Rob Zombie movie about the Firefly family, except these psychos don’t swear (or talk). So, according to Krasinski, some survivors are smart and good, and some are little better than sociopathic animals. Since A Quiet Place Part II was in the can by summer 2019, well before the current slow-motion apocalypse, I can’t claim it’s saying anything about some of the dumber, louder conflicts of today. Krasinski does, in hindsight, seem overly optimistic that, presented with a solution to a lethal problem, most Americans would embrace that solution instead of many of them being absolute selfish oblivious dumbasses.

Anyway, a political read of either of these films does no good for the films or for us. They’re meant as mechanical nail-biters working off a cunning premise, though the more pared-down a story is, the harder our brains work to fill the silence with interpretation. Krasinski’s attempt at world-expanding here raises more questions than it answers; as the four refugees in the mall in George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead found out, you do have to worry a little about the monsters you’re sharing your oasis with, but you have to worry a lot about the itinerant human dregs who stumble on your bunker and want what you have. Maybe that’ll be the premise of Part III, and Krasinski can throw in a bit about someone developing a vaccine against the creatures and half the population refusing to take it.